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Stopping the slavers

International | Even New York pensioners can be caught supporting Sudan's anti-Christian "holy war"

Issue: "Can the boom last?," Oct. 16, 1999

A widening scope of activism against the Islamic regime of Sudan found an unusual venue last week-in a hearing room of city hall in New York City.

There, a diverse array of witnesses came before the New York City Council to stress the moral problem of doing business with the Sudanese government, whose reign of terror and enslavement against Christians and other minorities living in southern Sudan is nearing its 20-year mark. Led by the American Anti-Slavery Group, the panelists asked the city council to sever its pension-fund investment ties with Sudan, whose fundamentalist regime enslaves and murders black Africans as part of a "holy war."

Trouble in independent Sudan began in 1983, when the government amended the country's constitution in favor of Islamic law. This meant the ruling Arab north could attempt to enforce the Muslim Sharia code on the entire country. Civil war has ensued, with southern insurgents, known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army, fighting the north to a stalemate, in spite of the government's superior military might and air power. The war is one of attrition, however, and observers say it has become one of the ugliest-and most ignored-this century. More than 1.9 million civilians have died, and 4 million have been displaced or carried off into slavery. Sudan's forces have also specifically targeted Christian sites, bombing churches, Christian hospitals, and those involved in church relief efforts.

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Despite the tragic numbers, few countries have taken a stand against the Sudanese government, and it retains full credentials in the United Nations. Activists in the United States saw how quickly attention was mobilized on Kosovo, a conflict of actually smaller proportions, and have since increased their decibels. "Sudan is absolutely the worst humanitarian situation in the entire world," said Roger Winter, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, during airstrikes against Kosovo and the subsequent refugee crisis.

Activists have also taken the case against Sudan on the road, looking for support outside Washington. In New York, this has meant focusing first on something dear to the hearts of millions of New Yorkers, the city's pension funds. Witnesses before the Oct. 4 hearing said those funds make millions of New Yorkers unwitting partners with slavery and slaughter.

The funds contain 186,000 shares of stock in Canadian-based Talisman Energy, a company with a major stake in oil-rich Sudan. Talisman pipelines pump crude oil in a joint venture with the Sudanese government and state-controlled oil firms from China and Malaysia. Activists who oppose the Sudanese government, and rebel leaders fighting inside southern Sudan, say the oil export revenues are used to buy military hardware and to step up the war against Sudan's Christians and minority groups.

"The U.S. Congress is calling Sudan a place of genocide and enslavement," said Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group. "Why should New Yorkers in the citadel of freedom, in the glow of the Statue of Liberty, do business with slavers, murderers?"

Witnesses who testified before council members included the AASG's Mr. Jacobs, who is Jewish; Sudanese Christian church worker Mark Ajo; William Sanders of the Family Research Council; trade unionist Norman Hill; and others. New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi bolstered the campaign by asking Talisman head James Buckee to respond to an AASG report on Talisman. Council members and Mr. Hevesi (who successfully crafted New York's sanctions threat against Swiss banks that withheld funds from Holocaust survivors) say they are debating whether to impose sanctions or to simply threaten sanctions as a first step against Sudan and Talisman.

Activists say they will follow up with a campaign targeting Sudan's corporate connections to New York. Sudan is the world's leading producer of gum arabic, which soft drink manufacturers import from Sudan.

Other protest movements are also growing. College students have inaugurated demonstrations against Sudan (see sidebar). Last year, Barbara Vogel's fourth-grade class at Highline Elementary in Aurora, Colo., raised more than $50,000 to buy Sudanese slaves their freedom. At least 100 other schools around the country have joined that campaign, according to AASG, which has purchased at least 800 slaves since 1995, for about $50 a person.

AASG raises money and works with Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a Swiss relief group, to redeem slaves. The practice has come under criticism from UNICEF and other UN-based groups, who say there is not adequate monitoring. But Boston-based AASG is outpacing its critics, raising over $35,000 and opening chapters in New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, Kansas City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pomona, Calif., and Seattle.

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